In 1995, probably no one at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw thought about Feliks Tych (July 31, 1929–February 17, 2015) as a successor to Professor Daniel Grinberg, who was the director at that time. Nevertheless, during the period that he led the Jewish Historical Institute, Tych transformed the institution and left a significant mark on all aspects of its work. At Professor Tych’s funeral on February 20, 2015, Marian Turski, his close friend and Auschwitz survivor, related how Tych had made such an enormous switch in his life — from a man who showed little interest in Jewish matters to the head of the Jewish Historical Institute. Turski was also the long-time editor of the weekly magazine Polityka and now serves as vice-chairman of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland.
In a sense the Jewish Historical Institute was for Tych a return to his past, to Radomsko, to his childhood and wartime youth. He spoke about this in an interview with Barbara Engelking in 2005. He also described the story of his survival in a statement for Yad Vashem connected with an application to honor his adopted mother with the title of Righteous Among the Nations:
At Wanda Koszutska’s I found not only a safe shelter, but also a real home, motherly care. She saw to it that I could continue my education in spite of the Nazi occupation…She risked the lives of her own children…We were liberated on July 31, 1944. As we had no means to live, we soon moved to Lublin and in April 1945 to Lodz. Until my high school graduation exams that I took in that city in 1948 and soon after becoming financially independent (in the same year I started historical studies at the University of Warsaw) I was a family member. In fact I haven’t ceased to be one until now.
His parents and four siblings who remained in the Radomsko ghetto perished in Treblinka.
Feliks Tych studied for his Ph.D. in the Department of the History of Southern and Western Slavs in the Faculty of History at Moscow University, receiving his degree in 1955. In September of that year he was given a position in the Department of the History of the Party at the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (he joined the party in 1948) and, from 1956, at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, in the department of Polish History dealing with the period 1864–1918. During the antisemitic purges in 1968, he was “exiled” from the latter, as he described it, to the Central Archives of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (Communist party), where he could concentrate on his research. In 1970, he became an associate professor and, in 1982, a full professor. He did not manage, however, to return to the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences. In 1987, he was forced to retire, but this opened the possibility for him to lecture at universities and academic centers abroad, among them in Göttingen, Darmstadt, Freiburg, Berlin, and Kassel. In 1990, he received the Victor Adler Award, which is accorded by the Austrian state.
By that time he already had published a significant number of works, including monographs and edited volumes. Early in his career he collaborated with Stanisław Kalabiński to produce a guide to sources on modern Polish history, Materiały do instrukcji wydawniczej do dziejów najnowszych Polski, which is still quite useful for scholars; and an innovative examination of the history of the 1905 revolution, Czwarte powstanie czy pierwsza rewolucja: Lata 1905–1907 na ziemiach polskich. The labor movement at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in its various forms and manifestations was the focus of his research until 1990.
In 1956, he initiated a scholarly quarterly Z Pola Walki and was its editor-in-chief for more than a dozen years (the quarterly was published until 1989). In the 1970s, he started a series of archival sources called Archiwum Ruchu Robotniczego, and, by 1988, he had edited eleven volumes. Another monumental undertaking that he launched was a dictionary of activists of the Polish labor movement. He worked on this from 1967 to 1987, often suffering from accusations that “there were too many Jews” in it. The fall of communism led to the termination of these studies, despite the fact that they were not at all propaganda. Three large volumes covering entries for the letters A to K attest to the importance of this publication and why it has remained an excellent source of information until today. In the years 1961–1974, he was a member of the editorial committee of the Polish Biographical Dictionary, and, in 1975, he joined its advisory board.
In the curriculum vitae that he submitted to the Jewish Historical Institute when he started his work there in January 1996, he wrote:
All together I have published eighteen books, some of which were translated into foreign languages, sixty large studies in academic journals and collections of articles in Poland, Italy, Germany, France, USA, Japan, Denmark, and Hungary, and approximately 280 miscellaneous publications (articles, reviews, biographical entries and edited sources).
Over the period of almost the next twenty years, this number increased significantly, but the subject matter changed.
One subject that constituted a link between the two periods of his life as a scholar was Rosa Luksemburg, an eminent activist in the labor movement and a Jewish woman (although she attributed no particular significance to this fact). Tych had already written about her, but he was planning to write more. When, after her father’s death, Eleonora Bergman found in his library a number of books written by Rosa Luksemburg and about her life and work, she decided that the best place for them would be in Professor Tych’s collection. He protested a bit, claiming that he did not have enough space for the books, but he took them nevertheless in order to facilitate his future research. Once he went with a group of Japanese historians to Zamość to show them the city of Rosa Luksemburg’s birth. When later relating this incident, he laughed at his guests’ disappointment when it turned out that not everybody in Zamość knew where the famous former inhabitant of the town had lived.
Tych initiated a conference on November 28–29, 1997, at the Jewish Historical Institute, marking the centennial of the Bund. This, for him, was a link between his earlier interests and his more recent ones. It was a scholarly event, but it had an emotional dimension as well. Although little remains of the party, the arguments between the proponents of the Bund and Zionism continue.
Professor Tych treated the Jewish Historical Institute as an opportunity for scholarly research and for educating a broad spectrum of Polish society. The latter aim was especially close to his heart. While working for the institute, he realized more than ever how large the gaps were in knowledge about Jews, their history, and the very different country that Poland was when Jews still inhabited the land. He was very happy to be on the jury of a contest organized by the Shalom Foundation on the history and culture of Polish Jews; he was especially excited about projects concerning young people and their growing awareness and knowledge of the history of Jews in their native cities and towns. A scrutiny of school handbooks at various levels, from middle schools to high schools, from the point of view of the presentation of Jewish history and culture and the Holocaust, resulted in a series of articles and reports. The primary result, however, was a new handbook, which, with the support of the Shalom Foundation, found its way to all schools in Poland. This handbook, Pamięć: Historia Żydów polskich przed, w czasie i po Zagładzie, was published in 2004 in Polish, and in 2008 in English.
Professor Tych joined the Jewish Historical Institute at a time when two important projects were in the planning stage: a complete renovation of the building in which the institute was housed; and the creation of a Museum of the History of Polish Jews. He immediately became involved in both.
As a result of the renovation, the Jewish Historical Institute began functioning as a modern institution, and its rich collection was now stored in more appropriate, even exemplary, conditions. As far as the museum, this was a long and complicated process, replete with problems and not devoid of conflicts. Professor Tych took part in those efforts from the very beginning and almost to the end. Unfortunately, his deteriorating health prevented him from participating in the official opening ceremony of the museum in October 2014.
In the first comprehensive guidebook to the institute, published in 2003, Feliks Tych wrote:
The Institute aspires to regain the standing it had during the first postwar years in the area of Holocaust research. Our aim is to turn the Institute into a place that will stimulate educational and cultural activities apart from being a research center on the history and culture of Polish Jews.”
One of the first important decisions Tych made was the project to edit and publish a full version of the Ringelblum Archive. He wrote in the introduction to the first volume:
The Jewish Historical Institute...is determined to make every effort to publish within the edition inaugurated at present everything it is in possession of as far as the Ringelblum Archive is concerned. A general editorial idea will be on the one hand aiming at completeness, on the other hand faithfulness to the original. No element of this heritage can remain beyond the framework of this monumental publishing project [that] we have launched with this volume.
This project is continuing according to its basic principles, and chances are that it will be completed in 2017.
Among the numerous collections housed in the Jewish Historical Institute, Professor Tych valued most highly the postwar testimonies of Jewish survivors. He regarded them as a source of knowledge about the experiences of individual people, and he sought to make them internationally known and researched by scholars. First, a seven-volume catalog of the testimonies was published, and then a number of them were translated into English. Tych edited a selection of these texts and wrote a preface. Unfortunately, to date certain problems have prevented the publication of the English version.
Tych was particularly enthusiastic about a project in cooperation with the University of Leipzig to edit and publish a selection of children’s testimonies stored in the institute’s collections. The largest controversy was caused by the order of the texts in the volume. Tych wanted to use the children’s ages as the book’s organizing principle; he obviously remembered that during the process of his growing up under those circumstances his own perception of reality changed. However, ultimately, a more “neutral” alphabetical order was accepted. This project has not been completed either. In 2008, a German version was published.
Feliks Tych was also concerned about publishing testimonies from other collections. He realized the importance of the witness accounts that only recently have been given more attention by historians around the world and are more appreciated as a source of knowledge. He was certainly one of the precursors of this approach. In 2006, in cooperation with Stanford University, he published testimonies of Jews deported to the USSR. The title of the volume, I Saw the Angel of Death, is self-explanatory.
Tych also initiated a series of books entitled Memoirs, Testimonies, Diaries at the institute; they provide an opportunity to show the vicissitudes of individuals entangled in the history of the twentieth century. These are not works of great literary merit, but their testimonial value is unquestionable, and they have found a wide circle of readers. For instance, as a result of publishing Ewa Turzyńska’s memoirs, Sądzonym mi było żyć, the families of two persons who saved the life of the author and her son were discovered.
Feliks Tych took the decision that the Polish-language journal Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, published since 1950, be re-launched, in 2000, as the Quarterly of Jewish History (Kwartalnik Historii Żydów). After ten years it was listed on the Master Journal List as the only Polish historical periodical of this rank next to Acta Poloniae Historia. The credit for this goes undoubtedly to Tych, as he decided that along with articles in Polish, articles in foreign languages should also be published.
In general he was open to various opinions. It seems his war experience shaped his attitude toward people, which was characterized by the avoidance of simplifications and generalizations. He was not religious himself, but he contributed regularly to the Jewish almanac published by the Jewish Community of Warsaw; for him this was another forum where he could present his views and write about the matters he had not written about earlier. These included works on the survivors and their perception of the attitudes of Polish society during the war; the image of the Holocaust in the collective historical consciousness in Poland; and the sixtieth anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
A number of reflections from those articles were later published in his book Długi cień Zagłady, prepared with the help of his wife Lucyna.
In the chapter on historical consciousness, he wrote:
Thus if today we complain of the relatively low level of historical consciousness, cultural awareness, and, finally, moral sensitivity regarding the Holocaust, we must ask the logical question: where was it to come from, since for half a century very few people worked at developing it? It seems to me that the effects of today’s wider presence of the issue of the Holocaust in the media, literature, and textbooks will only be visible after at least a decade or more.
He was quite right. At the time he became the director, he deplored the lack of Holocaust researchers at the Jewish Historical Institute. In the meantime an entire new generation of scholars has appeared who are trying to fill in the gaps.
Professor Tych was very active in the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research (ITF), recently renamed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and contributed to the increase of projects concerning Holocaust commemoration and education carried out in Poland. He always supported local grassroots initiatives for the commemoration of the Holocaust. He reviewed numerous projects and treated his duties very conscientiously, since he believed that teachers, educators, cultural and educational institutions, especially in smaller centers, should be given support. Thanks to his determination a number of Polish projects received financial support and were realized.
For several years in a row, he participated in the International Summer School on Holocaust Education organized by the Center for Holocaust Studies at the Jagiellonian University in cooperation with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the Education Center in Skokie and Yad Vashem. He would always deliver two lectures: on justice after the Holocaust; and on the rescuers and the Righteous Among the Nations. As the director of the program, Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs recalls that Tych would gradually add more and more personal remarks, referring to his own experience during World War II. His lectures were greatly appreciated and applauded, and he was moved by the response he received from his audiences. As he believed in grassroots work, he treated teachers with great respect, as those who carry the responsibility of implementing knowledge and commemorating victims. For the participating teachers Tych’s lectures were a meaningful experience, due to his clear and objective treatment of Polish attitudes during the Holocaust and references to his own experience. He served simultaneously as a reliable scholar, a survivor, and a witness.
Professor Tych’s last initiative, which he cherished enormously and to which he devoted the last eight years of his life, was a very ambitious interdisciplinary project on the aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland, covering sixty-five postwar years. He managed to recruit almost thirty scholars from various universities and other institutions in Poland and one from Switzerland — historians, sociologists, ethnographers, anthropologists, literary historians, demographers, and lawyers. For more than two years, the scholars met regularly at the Jewish Historical Institute to discuss first drafts and then final versions of their chapters, covering various aspects of this multifaceted theme. In October 2010, the project was presented at a conference at Yad Vashem. The conference was organized by the International Institute for Holocaust Research and the Diana Zborowski Center for the Study of the Aftermath of the Shoah; a decision was made to publish an English version of the proceedings. The Polish version was published in 2011, and the English version, Jewish Presence in Absence: The Aftermath of the Holocaust, 1944–2010, in 2014.
This volume is an attempt to examine the influence of the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation in general on the condition of the few Polish Jewish survivors and on the nature of Polish-Jewish relations; it is addressed both to experts and a wider audience. This is the first publication to deal on such a broad scale with the impact of the Holocaust on the postwar lives of the few remaining Jews in Poland and on their relations with the national majority.
Tych’s hope was that the volume on Poland would serve as an example for the study of the shortand long-term impact of the Holocaust and that similar volumes would be written on the experience in other European countries. The authors introduce the reader to the Jewish world and the world of Polish-Jewish relations in postwar Poland, from 1944–1945 up to the first decade of the twenty-first century. The chapters are arranged in four sections, which, to a large extent, reflect the crucial stages of Jewish life in postwar Poland and the perception of the majority of Polish society: the years when losses were estimated; the period when hopes were reborn and lives rebuilt; the years of taboos and erased memory; and, last but not least, the situation today. Tych contributed a chapter on the events known as “March1968”; that is, the genesis, unfolding, and consequences of the antisemitic campaign in Poland that took place in 1967–1968. Here, like in his other publications and lectures, he serves both as a scholar and a witness to important events.
The crucial motivation in creating this project was Professor Tych’s desire to integrate the narrative of the Holocaust into the mainstream history of Poland and his conviction that this narrative should be expanded to include the post-war years. The project was made possible thanks to, among others, Mr. Eli Zborowski, a survivor like Professor Tych. At the time the project was proposed, Zborowski was the chairman of the New York-based American and International Society for Yad Vashem and a member of the Yad Vashem Directorate. Tych and Zborowski met for the first time at Yeshiva University in New York in April 2000, at a conference on Polish-Jewish relations during and after the Holocaust. At that time Tych was already thinking about the research project. Zborowski had been dreaming of a large-scale panEuropean project that would encompass all the countries affected by the Holocaust and those where survivors settled after leaving their native places. It was if he were waiting for an initiative such as Tych’s. However, Tych, although appreciative of Zborowski’s visionary idea, was more practical and managed to convince him that one should start with something on a smaller scale. He also felt that there were enough researchers in Poland to undertake the Polish part of a more complex and comparative project that might be carried out in the future. This was the starting point of their collaboration, and in subsequent years it was clear that these two men constituted an excellent team of enthusiastic and determined leaders. As Feliks Tych stated in Eli Zborowski’s biography, A Life of Leadership:
I will never forget our first conversation on this subject. We were unanimous in our opinion that the commonly presented narrative of the Holocaust violated the integrity of the real story. It excluded information about the immediate postwar effects of the Shoah: about the post-Holocaust dramas and personal dilemmas of the survivors, about the conditions they found themselves in and the problems they faced attempting to return to a normal life.…
Research about the way the returning survivors were received by residents of their native towns and villages was also important because it offered the key to reconstructing the real social and moral environment in which the Holocaust took place. How shall we understand that there were Poles who murdered Jews — including Eli’s father — and other Poles who risked their lives every day to save Jews — including himself, his mother, and his siblings? Few historians dealing with the immediate postwar period were ready to speak up on this matter.
Eli Zborowski passed away in September 2012, and the English edition of the book is devoted to his memory. When it reached Professor Tych in August 2014, he was already quite ill, but very happy that his last mission had been completed.